‘This House Would Legalise Cannabis’. Reynolds v Hitchens. University Of Southampton, 29th September 2016.
A vote was taken before the debate started: For the proposition: 49 Against the proposition: 18 Abstain/undecided: 17
John Pritchard, studying economics. For the proposition.
Jacob Power, studying philosophy. Against the proposition.
Peter Reynolds, CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform. For the proposition.
Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday. Against the proposition.
A vote was taken after the debate finished: For the proposition: 57 Against the proposition: 26 Abstain/undecided: 8
I start with an assertion that I think we can all agree on – the only purpose of any drugs policy is to reduce harm.
I argue that British drugs policy, specifically on cannabis, causes far more harm than it prevents and that the solution is to legalise. But by legalise, I do not mean a free for all. In fact, I mean a system of regulation which minimises harm.
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, cannabis is called a “controlled drug” but nothing could be further from the truth. What every government since 1971 has done is abandon all control. They have abandoned our communities. they have abandoned our young people and they have abandoned those who need cannabis as medicine. All of them, Conservative, Labour and the coalition, they have abandoned us all to criminals.
The results are street dealing, dangerous hidden cannabis farms that cause fires, theft of electricity, destruction of rental properties, gangs that exploit children, both by selling them cannabis and getting them involved in dealing, human trafficking, modern slavery, most often Vietnamese children, smuggled into Britain and locked up in cannabis farms to look after the plants. And as for the product itself, it is frequently poor quality and often contaminated with toxic residues.
These are the harms that the Misuse of Drugs Act is supposed to prevent but, in fact, it creates them, promotes them and maximises them.
Now, it may surprise you to know that the law is not about protecting people from health harms. The exact words of the Act are that it is about the misuse of drugs “having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem”. It is social harm that the Act seeks to prevent.
Which is just as well because the “harmful effects” of cannabis are very difficult to identify. Most of what you hear is either wild exaggeration or completely false. Even the Institute of Psychiatry, the source of many scare stories, admitted last year that its press office was misrepresenting and exaggerating its own research.
Now t’other Peter will tell you that cannabis is a dangerous drug which can cause serious, irreversible mental illness. In a debate like this it is impossible to compare all the various scientific studies that form the body of evidence on which cannabis policy should be based. I can certainly answer specific questions later on but for now, let’s rely, not on evidence, but on cold, hard facts.
The populist myth is that thousands of young people are afflicted by this terrible condition called ‘cannabis psychosis’. The facts are that in the last five years there has been an average of just 28 finished admission episodes in hospitals each year for people under 18 for cannabis psychosis.
Of course these are 28 tragedies and I don’t overlook that but in public health terms it is an insignificant figure. For instance, there are more than 3,000 finished admission episodes each year for peanut allergy but we don’t spend £500 million each year on a futile attempt to ban peanuts, do we? Yes, that’s how much we spend every year on police, courts, probation and prison services to try and stop people using cannabis.
However, it’s not as simple as that. Apart from hospitals, thousands of people each year receive what’s called ‘treatment’ for cannabis use disorder from community health services. Nearly 16,000 young people for the year 2014/15.
Now the only ‘treatment’ for cannabis is counselling but that’s not what this is really about. It’s actually about trying to force people to stop using cannabis regardless of whether it’s causing any harm. Public Health England, which records these figures, shows that 89% of all those in treatment have been referred from the courts, educational institutions or some other authority. In other words this is coercive treatment. You have no option. If you don’t agree the courts will impose a tougher penalty or you might get expelled from school. Only 11% of those receiving this treatment actually decide they need it themselves.
Don’t get me wrong now, I’m neither suggesting cannabis is harmless nor that it can’t be a real problem for some people. But I ask you this, if it has the potential for harm, is it better that we leave the entire market, now worth £6 billion per year, in the hands of criminals, or would it be better and safer for everyone if it was properly regulated and controlled? Wouldn’t any health harms be reduced, better treated, if we had quality control, age limits, proper labelling of what you’re buying? Isn’t this obvious, common sense?
We will continue to put most of our effort into the medical campaign because that is what morality and compassion demands But actually, there is far more harm caused by the prohibition of recreational use. As well as all the social harms I mentioned earlier, do you know there are one million people in the UK with a conviction for cannabis? People whose careers, ability to travel, even their credit score can be damaged because they got caught smoking a joint.
In all jurisdictions where cannabis is legally available, the benefits are dramatic and very easy to see. In Holland, far fewer children use cannabis than in the UK. Underage use is declining in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska where cannabis is legal for all adults and in the other 30 US states where medical cannabis is legal. Crime is down, fatal traffic accidents are down, alcohol consumption is down, overdoses and deaths from dangerous opioid painkillers are down.
The prohibition of cannabis is a great force for evil in our society. It promotes crime, it maximises the health harms of cannabis, it ruins lives, it denies people medicine that science proves will help them, it blights communities, endangers children, fritters away precious law enforcement resources.
Indeed, prohibition is a fundamentally immoral policy. It sets the police and the courts against the communities they are supposed to protect. After all, the demand comes from us and it is not going away. We are adults, free human beings who are entitled to act as we wish provided it doesn’t harm others. Our government and our police should serve us. It is an affront to justice, to the rule of law, to morality and to each one of us that this oppressive, ridiculous, evidence-free policy persists.
Legalise cannabis now! Please vote in favour of the motion.